South Carolina's governor will veto proposals to use taxpayer money to run the first-in-the-South Republican presidential primary in February, officials said Monday.
Two officials familiar with Republican Gov. Nikki Haley's decision spoke on condition of not being identified, saying they did not want to pre-empt her veto announcements expected Tuesday.
"She's been pretty clear from day one in this process that in this kind of budget year that taxpayer dollars don't need to go to pay for a primary election and that it's the responsibility of the party to take care of those dollars," one of the officials said.
The officials said the veto would not imperil the primary largely because of opinions released Monday and last week by the state attorney general and earlier this month by the U.S. Justice Department.
Haley had warned lawmakers to not put any taxpayer cash toward the primary. Still, the state budget would spend up to $680,000 on the contest. That spending is tucked in two budget provisions in the spending bill that Haley is considering. She faces a midnight Tuesday deadline to issue budget vetoes.
The state parties for decades ran and paid for their own primary contests. That changed in 2008 when the Legislature for the first time agreed to pick up the tab for high-profile Republican and Democratic party primaries.
Republicans here boast that every GOP nominee since 1984 has first won the South Carolina primary. That's tempered by skeptics who point out the field is thinned or weakened considerably by contests in Iowa and New Hampshire that precede South Carolina's Republican primary. Nonetheless, the primary draws national attention and candidates play hard here.
A scramble over the primary costs has been playing out for weeks behind the scenes to protect a contest other states, particularly Florida, would love to poach.
Earlier this month, budget writers nixed a measure that made it clear that the State Election Commission could run the presidential primary and collect money from the state Republican Party to run it.
Last week, the commission was told by the state attorney general's office that it was authorized to conduct the primary. And on Monday, Attorney General Alan Wilson made clear in an opinion that the commission could enter a contract with the GOP and collect money from the party for the estimated $1.5 million primary's expense.
"It is our view that presently, at least, the State Election Commission, possesses the authority to either conduct the presidential preference primaries itself, or in the alternative, to contract with the parties to do so," Attorney General Alan Wilson wrote.
He further wrote that a contract approach might be needed given that the election commission may lack the funding to bear the expense involved.
Through it all, the state GOP has tried to assure Republicans here and outside the state that the primary will go on. That message came through in a statement Monday from Chad Connelly, the GOP chairman.
"The South Carolina Republican Party is committed to having a spectacular and successful primary in early 2012. On multiple fronts, I am working with our legal team, the State Election Commission, legislators, and the Governor's Office to protect it," Connelly said.
No date has been set for the primary, but GOP rules say it can't be held before February, but Connelly will move it up if Florida schedules a primary earlier.
Connelly said in an interview that the veto was expected and welcomed the attorney general's legal opinion, calling it a game changer. He's still waiting to see how much the party has to raise. "We'll do whatever it takes," Connelly said.
The party has raised primary cash already with $160,000 in filing fees collected from six candidates, including a $35,000 payment a week ago from former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.
The party's last federal and state financial reports show it had nearly $137,000 on hand. Updated financial reports for the end of the month and quarter are due soon.
Connelly said: "All the little details aside, I believe the people of South Carolina want to see a successful presidential primary. It matters to everybody."
Meanwhile, the U.S. Justice Department has cleared up a question of how the primary's costs are covered and whether that matters under the federal Voting Rights Act. In a June 2 letter to Tim Pearson, Haley's chief of staff, the voting rights section chief Christian Herren Jr. said the funding source doesn't affect voting and won't require Justice Department preclearance.